Wildfires left much of Bastrop rebuilding, and a Texas State biology professor is using microchip technology to study and aid indigenous animals surviving in their new habitat.
Michael Forstner, Texas State biology professor, and Melissa Jones, doctoral student, are doing research in Bastrop on the endangered Houston toad, which is found in the Lost Pines Habitat in Bastrop County.
Jones said they are trying to figure out the toad’s breeding habits, perfect habitat and other survival necessities. She said there are many things working against the toad in its habitat of Bastrop. Factors include developments, highways, cattle ranchers, fertilizers, fire ants, drought and, most recently, catastrophic wildfires.
Two different properties in the Lost Pines Forest area of Bastrop County serve as sites for the research. One of the properties is the 454 acre Welsh Tract which, according to Forstner, is currently managed under an agreement between Bastrop County and the Texas State Biology Department. The other is the Griffith League Scout Ranch owed by Capital Area Council Boy Scouts of America who “remain very important collaborators on our work on the Houston toad,” Forstner said.
Jones said both properties are currently designated as critical habitats for the Houston toad and managed for them. Forstner and Jones are currently conducting different types of habitat restoration on these properties.
Jones said she currently has 15 exclosures of 10 by 10 meter fenced-in areas. Four adult Houston toads live in each. She said they are captive-raised toads from the Houston Zoo that were caught as egg strands in the wild, raised at the zoo and then brought back to Bastrop as adults.
Jones said groups of five exclosures each are in three different habitat types. These areas include a loblolly pine habitat, a cedar forest, and an upland oak hardwood-dominated forest.
Forstner and Jones insert into each studied toad a small PIT (Passive Integrated Transponder) microchip tag between the skin and organ cavities.
Jones is then able to wave a microchip reader over the ground, where the Houston toads burrow when they are not breeding at the ponds. The reader beeps when it detects a toad and tells Jones which toad it has located.
“What’s different is the type of chip that’s now available has different properties,” Forstner said.
Biomark is the company that makes the chips Forstner and Jones are now using.
Forstner said Biomark’s series of chips “designed for a very strong return signal” are different than the old style most researchers have used in the past.
“Biomark’s chips are novel in our work in that they enable reading the chip in an organism while it’s underground or at a distance,” Forstner said. “And that’s the big news.”
Jones said the chip does not tell the toads’ vital signs, but only tells whether or not the the creature is there.
Forstner said the toads will emerge in the spring, move to the ponds, go through their reproductive cycle and leave the ponds to shelter under woody debris or in the ground.
“With the new chips and reader we can search for them without disturbing where they are sheltering,” Forstner said. “But more importantly, with the study we have going now, we can examine the individuals and test how well they responded to the drought and survivorship from the drought and the recent catastrophic fires.”
Jones said the Bastrop wildfires have altered the landscape in which the endangered Houston toad used to live. She said this spring, as the toads head to the ponds to begin the reproductive cycle, they will “emerge onto a landscape that is completely foreign to them.”
“What we’re excited about is that we don’t necessarily know how they are going to respond to it,” Jones said. “We don’t know the outcome. There can be benefits and there can be consequences.”
Forstner said the Bastrop fires “were catastrophic in their intensity and scale” and were “not the kind of fires that normally are occurring as an ecosystem process.”
“The fire resulted in a pretty radical change from the original environment,” said Roxanne Hernandez, Lost Pines habitat conservation plan administrator for Bastrop County.
Hernandez said she anticipates the majority of land owners within the area will be working with the Lost Pines recovery team efforts to restore their individual properties.
“Our research program has now been modified to include evaluating the vegetative return and to include assisting with guiding reforestation for the habitat that is both what people moved to Bastrop live in, and in support of the Houston toad,” Forstner said.
Forstner said they have proposed a research plan to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Texas Parks & Wildlife Department to allow them to test what immediate effects of the fire are going to be on the toads. They plan to place additional experimental exclosures in the new types of habitat that resulted from the fire.
“We’re using the microchip technology in other aspects of our research, not just with the Houston toad,” Jones said.